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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Anemia sucks

Fatigue- a seven letter word which poses the ultimate paradox of the endurance athlete. Though we embrace its sting as confirmation that we are effectively pushing our limits, excessive amounts impede both progress and peace of mind. Indeed, such levels of exhaustion are all to common thread among today's endurophites, and the culprit is often more than simple overtraining. Though rest is undeniably beneficial, it does not offer a complete solution for much of this demographic. The true problem lies deep within our capillaries, where the magical process of oxygen transportation is being inhibited by insufficient iron.
Unfortunately I can attest to the effects of anemia. I started the season feeling strong and testing my limits, but by mid spring my performance had begun to fall off. After a couple of months of stubborn persistence, I finally accepted that I was overtrained and cut back my workload. However, this was not enough. The summer yielded more subpar results. When fall rolled around and ushered in a new cross country season, I thought that my problems were over. This was not the case. I finally visited my pediatrician and discovered that I had depleted my body's iron stores.
The ease with which we can fall into the clutches of anemia is frightening. The diet of an average health conscious American falls short of meeting their body's daily iron requirements. Even if they consumed the suggested amount of iron, it is likely that only 10% of it would be available for effective use. Finally, consider that the endurance athlete depletes ferratin stores at an extraordinary rate when subjecting his body to the rigors of daily training, and we have the perfect storm.
Now that you have been effectively frightened by its imminent danger, how are you to determine if you have anemia? The only conclusive proof comes from a blood test, but there are several classic symptoms. Lethargy, irritability, decline in performance, dizziness, and a pale complexion all point to iron depletion. Many of these indicators are also red flags for overtraining, but overtraining itself can often lead to anemia. However, it is prudent for any athlete training at a high level to get checked whether they are experiencing these symptoms or not. The amount of iron required for optimal function deviates by individual, but generally endurance athletes should strive for the higher end of the recommended range. So don't be surprised if your test only shows a slightly low iron level- just a few points can make an enormous difference. Because of the discrepancy between individuals, it is best to establish a baseline during the offseason when you are feeling fresh and the training load is reduced. Ask your doctor to check your hemoglobin and ferratin levels, and then get them retested approximately every four months during the training cycle.
Whether as treatment or a preventative measure, all endurance athletes should optimize their diets to combat iron depletion. Iron sources can be classified as either heme or non-heme, with heme being the most readily absorbable. As a general rule, any animal products are heme, while fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains are non-heme. This puts vegetarians at a distinct disadvantage, although it is still possible for them to meet iron requirements. When taken with iron, vitamin C promotes absorption. So an omnivorous athlete could eat a steak with a side salad including tomatoes, while a vegetarian would opt for fortified cereal with orange juice. Supplementation is also a wise precaution. Take iron tablets once a day with vitamin C. Finally, exercise patience; it takes six to eight weeks for significant change in iron levels to occur.